Gendering Reefer Madness

In their 2011 book, Gendering Addiction: The Politics of Drug Treatment in a Neurochemical World, Nancy Campbell and Elizabeth Ettorre problematize the male-centric knowledges that frame addiction research and treatment programs. They call for a more inclusive treatment strategy that does not consider the neurochemical “male brain” the baseline for recovery. According to the authors, these “epistemologies of ignorance” limit, even eliminate, the useful options available for female addicts.

In many similar ways, epistemologies of ignorance also manifest in the historical record of marijuana users in the 1930s. Perhaps “ignorance” is not quite the right term, even as its effects were just as restrictive, especially for women users in during the decade. But due to the American obsession with gender and sexual normativity during this period, both female and male users (as well as male and female anti-marijuana activists) occupied mutually exclusive discursive spaces from which two separate gendered narratives about marijuana use emerged. Reading past these stereotypes though, utilizing Michelle McClellan’s notion of “damp feminism” (here, and here), historians can make use of these highly problematic portrayals of female marijuana users from this period.

In the realm of activism, women occupied extremely important, though ostensibly marginalized, roles for social change. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union both included anti-marijuana agitation within their purview. The GFWC a collection of various civic voluntary associations sponsored speeches, meetings, and legislative action on behalf of women’s groups. The WCTU took up the anti-marijuana cause on the heels of Prohibition’s repeal. Both groups viewed the threat of marijuana a threat to family as much as a threat to civilization and urged complete prohibition of the drug through federal legislation.

The Heroic G-Man
The Heroic G-Man

Despite their central role in social change, it was common for contemporaries to relegate women’s groups to the margins. Few women by this time were active legislators and fewer were representatives of the justice system. Newspapers and magazines were keen to highlight the participation of respectable women’s groups in civic action but implicitly (often explicitly) contrasted women’s involvement with the nitty-gritty, day-to-day struggle of local police and federal narcotics agents. Perhaps no medium epitomized this contrast than the “hardboiled” crime fiction that emerged in the twenties.

I use these sources because they provide a sharp dividing line between the narratives of male users and female users, and an even sharper line between male and female activists. Male users were portrayed as unpredictable, violent “others” while female users were portrayed as seductive victims. Male activists were the active, heroic policeman or detective while female activists (WCTU members) were largely absent. In detective magazines young male readers were taken on a journey that allowed them to vicariously experience, first hand, the various narcotics busts, the ins and outs of the chase, and the adrenaline of the final showdown and ultimate arrest of the “bad-guy.”

The female "model" marijuana user
The female “model” marijuana user

While detective fiction is an oft-discussed pulp genre, the romance stories marketed to young women provided unique portrayals of the “model” female marijuana user. The key difference however was the utter lack of subtlety in the assertion of gender normativity within. Boys could aspire to exciting careers and the pulp genres provided literary devices through which boys could experience one of many possible future occupations. Women could not have similar aspirations torn between deciding the “right” path (which few women in these stories ever did, initially) of respectability, marriage, and family life and daring to dream of something different. So while boys could aspire, women were encouraged to conform. Many romance stories focused on the dangers that women faced by acting upon desires to experience the social freedom enjoyed by men.

And unlike detective stories usually told from the third person perspective, cautionary romance stories were much more personal, told in the first-person. Depictions of three “marijuana girls” that I have found were told by the women themselves, each having recovered and reformed, each electing to tell their stories as a warning to other potentially reckless readers. All of the stories follow a similar pattern. Born into respectable working or middle class families, the women all describe their youthful rebellion against their parents and their introduction to marijuana in a dance hall or similar youth hangout. Offered a “special cigarette” by a shady mafia character, each of the women quickly came under the spell of the drug and were used to seduce their female friends and young men to secretive marijuana dens.

Before they knew it, they were performing stripteases and other shameful acts for men, and were completely cut off from their families and previous lives. The women eventually escape from these terrible conditions and completely reform their lives, but are still marred by the shame of their previous actions. They warn readers that they are unique cases and that many similar girls never leave the clutches of their mob captors. They view their confessions as the first step in penance and as a way to make enough money to start a new life.

So how can McClellen’s notion of damp feminism come into play here? It is rather clear from news reports and the fictional press that women were likely involved in the recreational use of marijuana as well as the illicit trade in the drug. But the binary created by thirties discourse between the teetotalling reformers and the seductive victims most certainly belies the realties on the ground. Marijuana users participated in the illicit market of marijuana for any number of reasons. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the motivations of users and sellers of the drug must be separated from their portrayals in the media, in literature, and in other contexts during the period.

For instance, there are plenty of examples of women arrested for selling marijuana to youngsters in Chicago, New York and other American cities throughout the thirties. In the news reports, the women are often portrayed as victims of “connected” male influence, but there are the isolated stories of women arrested for running these operations. Little mention is made of the circumstances of these instances, likely because the language, the epistemologies of ignorance, prevented honest discussion of women taking advantage of entrepreneurial opportunities unless under the tutelage of a male counterpart. We need to recover these narratives.

In another well-covered incident at the height of reefer madness, the characteristics of a female marijuana user was so far from the expected that news reports searched for an alternative vocabulary with which to describe Ethel Sohl and her “companion” Genevieve Owens. In 1937, the two women culminated an extraordinary crime spree with the hold-up and murder of a bus driver in Newark, New Jersey. Media reports focused on the private lives of the two women. Sohl was married and in her early twenties, and Owens was 17 from a large immigrant family. The women met while they were both living in a women’s reformatory. Their relationship was the fodder for some speculative journalism. The two had been living in Owens’s parents’ house with nine other family members and the two “[slept] in the same bed.” On three separate occasions Sohl was described as “affect[ing] a mannish appearance with close-cropped bobbed head, parted on the side, and a plaid lumber jacket worn over a brown dress.”  After receiving life sentences, the two women were segregated in the New Jersey State Reformatory, reportedly to “break up the ‘friendship.'” The caption of a newspaper image, below, though likely apocryphal, reveals the journalistic anxieties brought to bear in the case.

Ethel Sohl's regret?
Ethel Sohl’s regret?

Lisa Duggan in Sapphic Slashers argues that the journalistic trope of the violent lesbian murderer (alongside the black male rapist) can offer a window on how newspapers and sensationalist presses articulated social anxieties about race, class, and sexuality during the late 19th century into the early twentieth century. Shedding social anxieties, dichotomous feminisms, and epistemologies of ignorance are keys to uncovering the history of female marijuana users in the historical record.

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